There’s something incredibly satisfying about smugly sitting down, clicking through to your Outlook settings, and switching on your out-of-office autoresponder. First, you get to decide on dates. Let’s see. Should you include the weekends as part of your out-of-office date range, signaling just how many vacation days you’ve earned through all your hard work? Or should you exclude designated national holidays and weekends to signal you’re a truly committed employee, loyal to the company cause while others are taking a breather?

Regardless, the real fun comes when crafting your actual subject line and message body. And for those of you who simply accept the default suggested out-of-office response or copy & paste someone else’s, don’t tell me it hasn’t at least crossed your mind to get a little more, shall we say, creative with it.

First, A Few Out-Of-Office Response Principles

Just as any piece of communication says something about your personal brand, so can your out-of-office message when you’re on a holiday vacation, taking a much-needed break from your work, your office, and yes, your colleagues. Especially your colleagues.

While you can never go wrong with the standard out-of-office reply, sometimes during the festive holiday season, people may be a bit more accepting of more light-hearted, unconventional approaches to letting others know they shouldn’t expect to hear back from you anytime soon.

Before we start, let’s just get grounded in the five characteristics of any effective out-of-office message, which should:

  1. Outline essential details: dates you’re away, including alternative contacts, and how often you’ll be checking your emails.
  2. Be professional: while adding some personality, creativity, and even humor into your out-of-office message is generally okay, just remember this response will be seen by someone writing to your work email.
  3. Address any caveats: as much as we all like to check out completely, sometimes the timing of your vacation coincides with an urgent project or client matter, in which case you should clearly outline what you plan to do while you’re away in case any high-priority matters arise.
  4. Indicate your email intentions: Indicate whether you’re absolutely not checking email under any circumstance while you’re away or will check email periodically. Some simply do not have the luxury or desire to completely switch off during holidays while others do, so you should make it clear where you fall on this spectrum.
  5. Be concise: make sure your out-of-office gets right to the point, including just enough information to cover what’s important. No more, no less.

With all this in mind, let’s go through six potential approaches ranging from conventional (and safe) to unconventional (and risky).

1. Standard Protocol

This approach probably requires no explanation because most of us typically see this version of an out-of-office response. The message simply states the person isn’t there, the date they’ll be back, and who to contact for anything urgent. Example:

Subject: [Name]’s out of the office

Thanks for your email. I’m on vacation from [month day] to [month day]. Please contact [unlucky person covering my work on top of their full workload while I’m away] for any urgent matters. Otherwise, I’ll get back to you when I return. Thanks.

If in doubt, just follow this approach. You really can’t go wrong. If you feel like pushing the envelope a bit, pasting in a cute GIF after your signature can add a touch of personality without seeming unprofessional. Just choose wisely.

2. Tiering Contacts

Although less common, I have seen some people stratify potential senders into different categories of, well, importance. This way, senders know exactly where they sit in the pecking order of people the recipient feels deserve a response while they’re away. Here we go:

Subject: [Name]’s out of the office

Thanks for your email. I’m on vacation from [month day] to [month day]. I won’t be checking emails regularly during this time. If you’re [client with deep pockets,] [manager’s manager’s manager who controls my year-end bonus], or [my mother], I’ll try to get back to you ASAP.

However, if you’re a [mere mortal], [annoying colleague I will enjoy ignoring without repercussions until I return], or [any other category of contacts I need to temporarily disconnect from for my own sanity], I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can once I’m back at my desk. Have a great day.

Okay, people may not love to be categorized based on relative importance to you, but there’s actually some merit to defining different categories of people and directing them accordingly so they can know exactly what to expect and do while you’re away.

3. Not-So-Subtle Gloating

While I wouldn’t say I come across this that often, occasionally, I’ll receive an out-of-office message that feels like the person feels the need to boast where they are instead of the office. It could come in the form of bragging, flaunting, or face-rubbing. It goes something like this.

Subject: Living My Best Live EVER

Thanks for your kind note. I, however, am currently out of the office, having the time of my life in [exotic island destination found on a budget travel site]. I’ll be off the grid, after crushing all my year-end KPIs and enjoying some much-needed and deserved R&R. Emails are currently taking a back seat to me bathing in the warm sunshine while sipping on piña coladas.

While I’m away though, a ton of talented, devoted people are still holding down the fort. For any urgent matters, assume you won’t get a response from me anytime soon, so instead reach out to [alternate contact name] at [email, phone, WhatsApp, full work address, etc].

Hope you have a great day continuing YOUR work while I’m CHILLIN’. Look forward to reconnecting soon. Warm regards.

4. Unleashing Your Inner Shakespeare

Okay, I’ll admit, I seldom see people do this, but here goes. During the holidays, I think it’s safe to say people are in better moods and probably more tolerant of you going off script. You could (not saying you should) take a more poetic approach to change things up and differentiate yourself from the crowd. For example . . . (clearing throat).

Subject: I’m out of reach to hit the beach

Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m away from my desk, enjoying the view.
While I’m not here, I will not reply soon. Because I’m out fishing while whistling a tune.
For anything urgent, try [name] who’s still in. Trust me, your message won’t go to her bin.
Okay, let’s just plan to touch base when I’m back. By then, my boss surely won’t deal with this slack.

Disclaimer: I’m not advocating for, encouraging, or recommending this approach, but just want to share the range of options out there.

5. Sarcastic

While we’re at it, if you feel like you have the license to do so, i.e., those of you who have already “made it” in your career and have nothing left to prove or lose, why not try a light-hearted, sarcastic message poking fun at the absurdity of the sender attempting to reach you when they know NO one in any office is responding to emails during the last week of the year. In fact, if they did respond, it would signal their work-life balance is completely out of whack, detracting from their impeccable reputation as someone who has it together at all times. Something along the lines of this could do . . .

Subject: Will respond only to “important” emails

Greetings! I’m currently out of the office. And by “out,” I mean 100% checked out. While I’m away, you can certainly try to reach me, but I will be intentionally letting emails pile up in my inbox because I can during this rare week when I switch off for once. You could try [random other person] who I’m SURE will just LOVE responding to MY emails during a week when he’s actually away too, but agreed to be listed here because I agreed to be listed as his alternative contact. See ya!

Proceed with caution here. I can count on one hand the contacts I know who could get away with this without rubbing people the wrong way.

6. Brutally Honest

Now, I feel like you can probably only get away with this if you fall into the rare category of people who others find consistently humorous, which gives you the license to go a little hog-wild with your out-of-office response, counting on other people feeling the same way and giving you a pass for saying what’s already on their minds but they’re too afraid to say out loud.

Subject: Ignoring emails because everyone else is doing it right now

I’m gonna be straight with you. After already spending most of my waking hours this year with colleagues, showing my face at the company Christmas party honestly took me over the edge. If I have to respond to one more internal-alignment-building-meeting-related email when I should be instead eating figgy pudding and opening presents, I’m honestly gonna lose my marbles.

I need a break, so I’m taking one. It’s not that I don’t care about my job. I just don’t care that much about your “urgent” matter at this specific moment in time. Thanks for understanding. Happy holidays!

Seriously, tread carefully with this. Again, few people can pull this off. While it may feel cathartic and enjoyable as you vigorously type this out with a grin on your face, this kind of stuff can get you fired if it lands in the wrong hands.

Your Out-Of-Office Reply Says A Lot

All joking aside, the out-of-office reply is a very important mechanism to let others know you’re setting some boundaries between your personal time and work, which we all need and deserve. It sets expectations and communicates what you will and will not do while you’re away. Additionally, if you’re a leader in your organization, clearly stating and modeling that you’re switching off and going on vacation mode will certainly encourage others to do the same.

Whether you decide to go traditional or throw caution to the wind and let your creativity (and job security) fly during the holiday season, just remember that even your out-of-office reply, like every other piece of communication, will say something about your personal brand. So just be sure it’s saying the right thing.

Above all else, don’t forget to actually turn on your out-of-office before you take off for the holidays. The last thing you need in the new year coming back from a restful holiday are a bunch of annoyed colleagues, clients, and contacts wondering where you’ve been. At the same time, safe to say that most people will understand it’s that time of year when everyone deserves a pass.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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